Made for Each Other

More and more, interactive productions like 'Tony n' Tina's Wedding' and 'Shear Madness' make the audience an integral part of the show.

September 26, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

A young couple is getting married in the Inner Harbor tonight. They also got married yesterday. In fact, they'll get married eight times a week for the foreseeable future. And you're invited to the ceremonies.

Meanwhile, down in Washington's Foggy Bottom, there's a murder eight times a week. And you're expected to help identify the murderer.

Welcome to the world of interactive theater, where the public mingles with performers at Renaissance festivals; where comedy troupes enlist the aid of the audience; and where John Q. Theatergoer determines the outcome of a play.

FOR THE RECORD - On the cover of Sunday's Arts & Society section, the man dancing in the "Tony N' Tina's Wedding" photograph is incorrectly identified. His name is Randolph W. Hadaway, and he portrays a cousin of the bridegroom in the play. The Sun regrets the error.

"Interactive theater is any type of theater in which the audience becomes an active co-creator of the show with the performers," explains Jeff Wirth, author of a handbook on the subject. "It's very much like jazz. There is a definite structure to jazz music, but within that structure there is the freedom to create spontaneously in the moment."

Baltimoreans will get a hardy dose of it when "Tony n' Tina's Wedding" opens at Scarlett Place on Thursday. (The show is now in previews.) Washingtonians are already old hands at the genre, having celebrated the 12th anniversary of the comedy whodunit "Shear Madness" at Kennedy Center last month.

In "Shear Madness," the actor playing the detective stops the show in mid-play to seek the help of the theatergoers, who will eventually choose the murderer. Although the show has a cast of six, Bob Lohrmann, associate director of the Washington production, likes to think of it as a play for seven actors -- the seventh being the audience.

In "Tony n' Tina's Wedding," theatergoers become guests at the nuptials of the fictitious blue-collar Italian-American couple, Tony Nunzio and Tina Vitale. An environmental piece, "Tony n' Tina" takes place at a catering hall -- and in some cities, also a church -- and features a pasta dinner. That's why, even though the show is part of the Mechanic Theatre subscription series, it is not being presented at the theater. Scarlett Place was selected in part because it has a hall, which had been used for real weddings in the past.

Meeting the family

"Tony n' Tina" gives audience members a chance to dance with the bride and groom, eat dinner at a table with a member of the family and chitchat with the parish priest who performs the ceremony. A different production, which ran for five months in Fells Point in 1990, could get pretty wild. Being pelted with bread or having champagne spilled on your dress was a frequent hazard.

Sandy Hey, founder, producer and artistic director of Hey City Theater, the Minneapolis company that is producing Baltimore's current version of "Tony n' Tina," says the new rendition is "a kinder, friendlier, more patron-friendly experience."

Baltimore is the third city in which Hey has produced the show. Her Minneapolis production, now in its fifth year, has grossed more than $11 million. A Portland, Ore., company ran almost two years. The Baltimore cast members have six-month contracts.

Once described by the New York Times as "the oddest, goofiest, unlikeliest hit in New York," "Tony n' Tina" began as a dormitory sketch performed by college students Nancy Cassaro and Mark Nassar in the late 1970s. The original production is in its 12th year off-Broadway. And it has spawned a seemingly endless array of imitators, from "Grandma Sylvia's Funeral" to "Bernie's Bar Mitzvah," which originated in Baltimore and played a short run in New York in 1992.

"Shear Madness" is also a venerable hit. Currently in its 20th year in Boston, it is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest-running nonmusical play in American theater history. Worldwide, the show has grossed $105 million and been seen by 5.5 million people. It seems well on its way to fulfilling the prophecy of a Boston cast member who once told the Wall Street Journal: " 'Shear Madness' could end up as the McDonald's of American theater. Call it McTheater."

Although interactive theater might seem like a recent phenomenon, it's not new. The form has roots in 16th century Italian commedia dell'arte, in which traveling troupes improvised plays about stock characters. In fact, besides improvisation, larger-than-life stereotypes are a holdover in many modern-day interactive shows. "Tony n' Tina's" Hey traces the roots back further than that. "You can dig back as far as you want -- to Greek theater with the chorus, and the audience drawn in," she says.

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